Robert Nowall

Prisoner, by Robert Nowall

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PRISONER

 

by

 

Robert Nowall

 

 

 

 

            Eleven days ago, the Lieutenant told Miriam Faraday that the glass panels would come off this morning.  So Miriam sat on the concrete floor by the cell bars and looked out, past the ramp that spun along the outside tower, to the transparent material that blocked her view.

            Miriam did not think anything she said to the Lieutenant would stop him from doing it.

            The view never changed.  To the right side, two concrete towers, just like the one she was locked up in.  Past that, a green jungle forest that spread in a bowl from right to left, horizon to horizon.  One tower was a little further away, but both were the same height.  A variety of white clouds filled the sky from time to time.  If the weather was good, the sky was blue.   This planet's sun, this time of year, rose to the right of the towers; later on it would move to almost straight out before moving back.

            Miriam didn't mind the cover.  It kept the rain and snow and cold of winter out.  The building had a heater.  But it was stuffy breathing, plenty of oxygen but stale and burned.  The snow and rain and cold put a blur of frost on the windows, enough to see there was a world out there, but not enough to see it.

            The red ball of this planet's sun shined through the plastic.  It was dawn.  The strip of light over the ramp, a dim light at best, went out.  As she looked past the ramp to the rising sun, the tower shook a little.  It shook for a minute or more.  Then the transparent plastic rolled up and rolled by, right to left, from up the ramp to down the ramp.

            Miriam stood up and closed her eyes.  She took a deep breath of the fresh air and felt the cool breeze hit her bare skin.  It was cooler than the constant temperature during winter.  It blew the stuffiness away and felt good.

            But a little was enough and, besides, her meal would soon be here.  She grabbed her beat-up coat from the ground and shook it out.  It was all that was left of her uniform after nine-plus local years.   Battered and torn, running from neck to knee.  It kept her warm when she was cold and made a think mattress while she slept.

            Not that the Ghar who came by was capable of caring.  But Miriam preferred not to expose herself to him.  She wrapped the coat around her, then sat down next to the bars and waited.

            The sun rose just a little when she heard the rattle of the food cart.  Soon, from her left, up the long spiral ramp that wound around the tower, the food card appeared, pushed by the Ghar who fed her.  This Ghar was about three meters tall and three wide, and the cart almost as large.  He was an unkempt creature, matted hair on his pelt, barefooted and dirty, shaking and staggering when he walked past.  Nothing like the Lieutenant.

            He had no mind, just preprogrammed behavior.  A zombie robot.  Miriam knew how to respond.  She shoved her tray from the day before out the narrow slot on the bottom of the bars.  The Ghar picked the tray up, deposited it on the cart among other empties, and with what seemed like a delicate touch picked up and shoved a full tray back under.  He then pushed the cart on, to the right, up the spiral, and disappeared.

            Miriam looked at the plate.  It was her one meal for the day and she could make it last the whole day.  It would keep.  It was piled high with the usual foods.   Some vegetables that tasted like a cross between carrots and asparagus.  Some others that were potatoes of some kind.  Two green fruits shaped like pears but which divided up in slices like oranges.  Something that tasted like meat, but was grown out in the farm plots below the tower and out of sight.

            Miriam looked around her cell.  It was large.  The outer wall was open air crisscrossed with vertical and horizontal thin metal bars, no space wider than three of her fingers.  The metal bars were thin, almost wires.  She didn't know what metal they were but they were too strong to bend.

            The ceiling, floor, and other three walls were concrete.  Water flowed out of a hole in the wall, down a cut groove, into a drain hole; this was her shower, her sink, her toilet.  The rest was flat, smooth, even.  The concrete itself showed signs of being mixed in a hurry.  Already it cracked and chipped here and there.

            At the beginning the cell held ten people, all women.  The Ghar preferred to segregate the human sexes, and despite the rumors they could figure out what sex every human was.  Nobody had more than the clothes on their backs, which in Miriam's case was her uniform and coat jacket.  She didn't have time to put her shoes on when she was rounded up.  After three days of processing, Miriam got a good delousing and an ID tag clipped to her ear.  Civilians were shoved in with the military; when the planet surrendered the Ghar captured at least a million humans.

            Seven of the women left after about six local months, civilians, moved somewhere else.  Colonel Triff got ill after about a local year and was taken away and never returned.  Maybe she lived, maybe she died.

            That left her and Bonnie.  They were both lieutenants, both drafted months before capture.  After another local year, Bonnie stopped talking, and started banging her head against the hard concrete walls.  She hurt herself enough to get taken away.  Again, Miriam never found out what happened.  But she had the cell to herself.

            For awhile, Miriam talked with men and women in the nearby cells.  They could touch through the bars at the cell edge and they could hear each other.  But over the years the cells to either side emptied out.  For the last two local years, Miriam found herself alone.

            There was no other human prisoner anywhere on the base.  The Lieutenant was her warden, her jailer.  But he became her friend, her lover.  After they learned each other's language, the Lieutenant admitted she was, in fact, the only prisoner.  He released her from her cell, gave her the freedom of the base, and she wandered as she pleased.

            Miriam sighed again.  She had freedom, and she threw it away.  She could come and go, and she returned to her cell.  It was all her fault.

#

            Eleven days ago, it was all different.  Miriam woke to find the Lieutenant gone.  She lived in the Lieutenant's quarters now.  They were stark and barren, with a large round mattress in the middle of the floor, a mattress that passed for a bed for a Ghar.  It was comfortable enough for her after the bare concrete floor of the cell.  And sharing it with the Lieutenant was worth it.

            But the whole place smelled of a long two-hundred-some-days of winter, with the two of them spending too much time inside.  When spring came, it needed a good airing out.

            Miriam got up, picked up her clothes and put them on, then put her ratty and dirty old coat over it.  The coat was hers, but the pants and shirts and shoes and underwear were scavenged from underground storerooms below.  They were sad places.  All the humans were stripped of everything but the clothes on their backs when they arrived in camp.  Those storerooms were where things wound up.

            Once dressed, she went in search of the Lieutenant.  He wasn't in the bathroom they shared.  She made use of it herself, an awkward fit because things were articulated for Ghar.  But it was better than the drainhole in her cell.

            Miriam found the Lieutenant where she expected.  He was in the middle of the camp control room.  Rows and columns of video monitors, none of which showed much of importance.  She looked at the Lieutenant.  He was about the same size as the zombie robot Ghar who used to bring her food, but he was healthy and well-groomed, his pelt combed and brushed.

            One of the Lieutenant's three eyes focused on her.  "Ah," he said, then started to sing.  " 'He was stranded by honor / For what it was worth / And fated to farming / For the people of Earth.' "

            Miriam joined in on the next lines.  " 'She was bound by her wishes / To study and learn / To travel by starship / And never return.' "  She taught him the song.  The Lieutenant sounded good after their long practices, in particular when he added human-style harmony from all three voiceboxes.

            But it was a one-voicebox solo vocal now.  When he reached the chorus, Miriam harmonized.  " 'But never you mind, child / Keep your eyes on your life / This story's for lovers / Not husband and wife.' "

            They did just the one verse and chorus, and came to a stop.  Then the Lieutenant said, "Good morning," in Standard.

            "Good morning," Miriam replied, in Ghar.  Their conversations mixed up both.  They had a pretty good grasp of each other's language now, and they worked from time to time on mastering written forms.

            Miriam sat down on the floor next to the Lieutenant.  There were no human chairs.  She nodded and said, "You sent today's message?"

            "Yes."  The Lieutenant tapped one hand over the Ghar equivalent of a keyboard.  "Every day is a copy of the previous day.  I won't have anything different to report for eleven days, and that's just removal of the winter window cover for the tower you were confined in."

            Miriam nodded again.  "Why are the winter windows on the tower?  I don't live there.  Nobody does."

            "Proper procedure," the Lieutenant said.  "When winter comes, the windows go up.  When spring comes, they come off."  His one eye on Miriam wandered away, to a monitor screen.  "It is just an order put into the computer."

            "But does the tower need the windows?"

            "I think it does?"  One of the Lieutenant's eyes wandered back to Miriam.  "It provides protection from the winter weather.  The towers won't last forever.  Two are already gone."

            Miriam remembered poking around the rubble, last year, after the Lieutenant gave her run of the base, before winter set in.  She looked away, not at anything in particular, and said, "I wouldn't mind seeing it collapse.  I spent years in that cell, horrible years."  She looked back to the Lieutenant.  "Till you came and talked to me."

            The Lieutenant raised the ridge over the one eye looking at her.  He said, "It is also a bit close to this building.  We might be damaged if something happened."

            "Oh."  Miriam looked up, at the ceiling.  "I didn't think of that.  Maybe we should relocate."

            "There's an emergency shelter down the path, if you want a safer home."

            Miriam frowned.  "That round building with the low pointed roof?  Is that what that is?"

            "It's built to withstand a nuclear blast, so I guess it would survive falling concrete.  It might be outside where the concrete would fall."  The Lieutenant swung around on his pad, putting a second eye in position to look at Miriam.   "It would be a tight fit, and we would lose contact with the outside world."

            "But it would be safer."  Miriam shrugged.  "Who needs contact?  All we have right now is you send a report in every morning, your off-base bosses send something saying they got it, and nothing else until it happens again the next morning.  I doubt they would notice if we stopped."

            "I couldn't say."  One eye wandered to a screen, then back to Miriam.  "The one time I missed a morning report, my commanders sent a message asking where my report was."

            "You said that."

            "Did I?"  The Lieutenant shifted again, leaving just the original eye on Miriam.  "I can't remember every small thing I've said to you."

            "Little thing," Miriam corrected without thinking.

            The Lieutenant went on.  "It's not as if I'm growing bored with you.  Since we discovered sex, you seem more exciting than before."

            Miriam sat up straight.  "Than before?  What was I to you before?"

            The Lieutenant swung around again.  For a moment, Miriam thought he would make one complete spin.  But then he swung back and said, "This conversation makes me uncomfortable.  But I must continue Before, you were a friend.  After, you were a friend, but we added sex to that.  Lovers, like you said."

            "Yes, that," Miriam said, and nodded.

            The Lieutenant said, "But I sometimes wonder if we would be friends if we were not put together like this."

            "What do you mean?"

            "I mean, I like you, but I don't know if we would establish our relationship if we had others to choose from."

            Miriam reddened and got to her feet.   The Lieutenant got to his three feet, too.  "That is outrageous," Miriam said.

            "What?" the Lieutenant asked.  "I am not sure what that word means."

            Miriam ignored him.  "Look," she said, "we are lovers and friends and that would have happened wherever we met."

            "For real?"  The Lieutenant paused, then said, "You would have sex with an alien Ghar like me if we met in the colony of your people?  Think.  It's not what you would call approved behavior."

            "Don't confuse me," Miriam replied.  "What does that say about you?  You're in the same situation."

            Their argument deflated after that, but they remained standing.  After a moment, the Lieutenant said, "I'm sorry.  Not for making you mad, but sorry for the situation.  I'm sorry and I don't want to argue with you, but I can't lie.  I don't know whether I would give up my seed to you if we were not together as we are."  He closed all three of his eyes.  "We started as prisoner and jailer, you will remember."

            Miriam swayed a little, then turned and left.  The tears flowed from her eyes.  She turned and found the outside door, just past the control room, opened it and stood outside.

            The sun was up and it was a clear day.  The deep snow that kept the two of them indoors most of the winter was gone.  The fields that made up the farm were brown and muddy.

            Miriam chose her path with purpose, and at a run.  She found herself at the base of the concrete tower.  It loomed over her, its spiral ramp making it look like a giant inverted corkscrew, the winter windows made it look as if it were covered in yellowish paper.  The bottom of the ramp was open and there was no door.  She ran onto the ram and started working her way upward.

            The ramp circled the building, one level after another.  Miriam passed cell after cell, all empty, all with bars removed.  Once she got a couple of ramps up, she broke into a run.  Her breath came hard now but she kept on.

            About a third of the way up, there was a cell with bars, but the bars lay on the ramp floor outside it.  Next to them was an abandoned Ghar cutting tool.  Miriam remembered the tool well; the Lieutenant used it to cut the bars away when he let her out of her cell.

            This was her cell, her old cell.  Miriam stepped inside, and lifted the bars up.  The metal mesh was a heavy lift, but she got it into position across the open side.  It was unsealed but it was there.

            As Miriam did, the Lieutenant came running up.  He spun around one leg at a time and came to a stop just past the cell.  He backed up, and looked in at her.  "Please!" he said.  "I said I was sorry.  Please come out of there."

            "What for?" Miriam replied and turned her back on him.  "I am just a prisoner, you're a guard.  This is where I should be.  In fact---"  Miriam took her coat off and tossed it on the ground.  The she removed her other clothing, her boots first, dropping them on the floor, and then the rest.

            When she was done she turned around and waved the bundle of clothes in front of her.  "Now I have just what I had when I got here, the coat and nothing else."

            "You said you liked those clothes."

            "But they aren't mine."  Miriam bent down and shoved the clothes and the boots through the slot at the bottom meant for her meals.  "Take them.  Put them away.  Put them back."

            The Lieutenant added, "Please.  I love you."

            "But I'm just a convenience to you," Miriam said.  "Something for you to use while I'm here."  She turned around again, facing away from the Lieutenant.  "Something...you will forget once it's over."

            "That's not true," the Lieutenant replied.  "I'll remember you all my life, as long as I can remember anything.  And I think you will remember me."

            Miriam turned and looked at the Lieutenant.  His eyes were wide and his arms and legs were spread wide.  She read it as extreme distress.  Miriam turned away, bent over and grabbed her coat from the ground, and put it on.  "I'm...sorry, too.  But I just want to be alone, here in my cell...a prisoner."

            Several moments passed.  Miriam stood with her back to the Lieutenant, holding the coat tight around her.  Then the Lieutenant said, "Fine.  Be that way."  Miriam heard the cell bars rattle, and she turned around.  The Lieutenant held the long-forgotten cutting tool in one hand.  He reached up and used it to reseal the metal bars in place.

            Miriam stared at him, open-mouthed.

            When the Lieutenant was done, he said, "If you want to be a prisoner, you might as well stay here.  I will reprogram the robot Ghar to bring you food."  He turned away, bent a little and grabbed her clothes where they fell.  "Good day," he said, and walked down the ramp out of her sight.

            Miriam ran to the bars---they did not budge when she slammed hard into them---and watched the Lieutenant as he left.  He moved along the concrete, his feet shuffling as he rotated.  But the sound faded and she was alone.

            She hummed to herself.  " 'But pay no attention /  And follow your trail / You're bound for the stars now / Keep your mind off this tale.' "

#

            And so she remained, confined to the cell, secure in knowing that once she was free.  The Lieutenant did reprogram the zombie robot Ghar, and it came up as it always had, once a day in the morning, pushing a cart with one platter of food.

            It was easy to fall back into the routine.  And the removal of the winter windows made it less stuffy, and opened up a view...a view that she was long since sick of seeing.

            So she waited, waiting for a visit from the Lieutenant, a visit that never came.  And it was all her own fault.

#

            Miriam curled up in one corner against the walls, her coat wrapped around her, the collar tugged up almost over hear head.  Outside the weather turned gray and cold and it rained, a heavy rain.  It was a bad morning.

            A clap of thunder broke into her thoughts.  The rain blew in the open tower and cell as far as where she curled up, wetting her coat.  She forced herself to look up.  It was more than bad.  In all the years of watching the weather from the cell, it was never as bad as this.  The rain was a steady sheet blowing straight at her.  It was like one of the intense winter storms the winter windows shielded her from, but with rain.

            Miriam got to her feet, and was almost blown off them.  Then she struggled, at a crawl, to get to the gars and hold on to them.  She put one hand on a bar when a blast blew her back, all the way to the wall.  She gritted her teeth and crawled back until she pulled herself tight against the bars.

            A new grinding kind of sound, louder than the storm, blew through the cell.  Miriam watched as the plastic-glass winter windows rolled up across the tower.  The rain stopped blowing into her face.  She blinked, then smiled.  The Lieutenant remembered.

            But then the glass cover slipped and a chunk fell away, peeling away from the tower like an apple peeled by a machine.  It ripped off as it had gone on.  Miriam gaped as the rain hit her again.  She saw several chunks fall from above, down past her view.  The tower shook.  Was this it?  Was the tower about to collapse?

            Another blast of water blew her off the bars.  Miriam fell back until she was against the far wall.  She curled up again, and pulled her coat over her.  Somewhere, through the roar of the storm, she could hear singing, loud and clear singing.   " 'They talked till the sunrise / Till the dawn came on fast / They talked of their future / They talked of their past.' "

            She joined in, her voice weak.  " 'It was love pure and simple / And doomed from the start / But it wasn't so simple / They knew they must part.' "

#

            Miriam woke up in a strange place.  She was under a synthetic-cloth blanket, and otherwise naked.  And the bulky flesh of the Lieutenant lay next to her.  She sat up.  It was a well-lit place, the light coming from a single fixture in the center of the ceiling.

            The Lieutenant lay on his side, all his eyes closed.   His pelt was damp and mussed up.  He made that familiar gentle snuffling noise that she knew came when he was asleep.

            Miriam smiled.  She remembered the Lieutenant carrying her out of her cell, but after that...nothing.

            The room was rounded, like a low cylinder or drum.  The walls were lined with boxes, some with Ghar markings on them, lining the walls.  Miriam recognized numbers and some food names, but many were unfamiliar.  Part of one wall was bare except for some pegs; and her ratty and dirty coat hung from one of them.  Next to the bare wall and the pegs was a door, Ghar-sized, stout and vault-like.

            Beyond the Lieutenant, the four zombie Ghar sat.  Their eyes were open.  Miriam knew they didn't sleep in a conventional sense.  The small room was crowded.  The one who fed her focused one eye right on her.

            Miriam took a deep breath.  The smells inside, she realized, were bad---at least one of the zombie robot Ghar opened its bowels and cut loose.  When they weren't at work they were supposed to be seated on their special toilets.  Bowel control was problematic for them at best.

            But why were they here?  And where was here?

            The Lieutenant stirred without waking, and Miriam saw a white strip bandage wrapped around one of his three legs.  "You're hurt," Miriam said aloud.

            The Lieutenant stirred and his eyelids fluttered.  One eye focused on Miriam, and he straightened himself up into a sitting position.  He put some pressure on the bandaged leg; he winced, something that looked like squeezing his whole body even smaller, and then let out a one-second yelp.

            "What happened?" Miriam asked.  "Your leg---"

            The Lieutenant looked down, then back to Miriam.  "I'm all right.  I'm all right."

            "But your leg?"

            "I...hurt myself."

            "The storm!"  Miriam sat up straight, remembering.  "How did I---well, how did you get me out of the cell and the tower?"

            "I, uh, ran up once I saw the windows fall off."  The Lieutenant paused.  "I tried to put them back up, but they fell apart."

            "Where are we?"

            "Emergency Shelter Number One," the Lieutenant said.  "You've seen it, you should have seen it.  It's just past my quarters---"

            "I know.  You told me about it once."

            "It's supposed to be safe against nuclear blasts, so I guess it would be safe from falling concrete, too."  He raised his eyebrows.  "There will be no going back to the tower.  It's too damaged."

            Miriam nodded.  "I don't want to go back.  I'm sorry I picked a fight with you.  Sorry."  She nodded, then asked, "So how did you hurt yourself?"

            "Falling something from the tower."  He made a long harmonized sighing noise from two of his voiceboxes, and said, "After I put you here, and moved the robot Ghar from my quarters---my quarters are wrecked, by the way---well, a piece of falling concrete went through my roof, and when that fell apart, part of it hit me."

            "Oh---that's bad---but the zombie Ghar----"  Miriam remembered how difficult it was to feed them, tickling their lips to open their mouths, tickling them again to get them to swallow.  "It must have been hard."

            "No more than any other time.  The storm didn't matter to them, but I needed to lean against them to keep them from blowing over.  I moved three in and worked the fourth to the door of my quarters when something fell out of the sky.  I pushed him out of the way and caught part of it in my leg."

            "Is your leg all right?"

            "The bandage is enough.  It will heal."  The Lieutenant looked at her, and said, "I have news."  He said "news" in Standard, then repeated the Ghar equivalent.

            The way he said it made Miriam sit up.  "Something important?"

            "Important.  I was in communication with my superiors right after my leg got hurt.  I reported removing you from the tower---they did not know you were out of it at any time."

            "Oh?"  Miriam smiled.  "Let's keep that between us, then."

            "Yes, let's keep it."  The Lieutenant looked at her with two eyes, then went on.  "I reported that, and I reported my injury.  They said they would close the prison and transfer you somewhere else when the storm passed."

            "Oh!"  Miriam hesitated, as the Lieutenant's words sunk in.  "Then this is the end."

            "The storm is still going," the Lieutenant said.  He shifted his bulk towards the door.

            "Let me," Miriam said.  "I'm closer."  She pulled the blanket up to cover her, rolled over, knelt in front of the Ghar-sized door, and tugged on the handle.  The door unsealed, then opened a crack.  Water blasted her in the face and she closed the door.  Miriam rolled away, and turned to the Lieutenant and said, "It's dark out.  But I can't tell if it's day or night."

            "When the storm stops," the Lieutenant said, "I am to contact them for further information."

            "Then we haven't much time."  Miriam looked the Lieutenant over, looking long at his bandaged leg.  She said, "Are you...up to...having sex with me?"

            The Lieutenant hesitated, then said, "I think so.  I've been thinking about it since I brought you here."  He pointed to the four zombie robot Ghar, lined up, looking in their direction.  "What about them?"

            "They won't bother us.  They can't see or hear anything."  Miriam threw the blanket cover from her and said, "Do it now."

            The Lieutenant shifted his weight and pressed against her.

#

            "Suppose they're not coming," Miriam said.

            "Patience," the Lieutenant replied.  "There is time."  The two of them waited just outside the Lieutenant's quarters.  The roof was crumpled, done in by several fallen slabs of concrete.  It was a cold day, and there was snow on the ground.

            But nothing came from the sky.  It was clear and blue, the view framed from where they waited by two of the towers.

            Miriam shivered and pulled her old coat tighter around her.  She stamped her feet on the ground.  Booted feet.  At the Lieutenant's suggestion, first thing after the storm passed, Miriam went below and gathered up an appropriate uniform from the stored supplies.  She was pleased with her appearance, and pleased with the Lieutenant for suggesting it.  The uniform had no insignia or identification, but it fit.

            The one other item she took was a comb, tucked in a shirt pocket.  The Lieutenant found it, for her long and ragged hair, long before when he first released her from the cell.  She ran a hand through her hair; she kept it shorter once she got out of the cell, but she felt the sentiment.

            "Shouldn't they be here by now?" Miriam asked.

            "I think so," the Lieutenant said.  "But they said morning and it's still morning."  He looked at her with one eye.  "You are so impatient."

            "Nerves."  Miriam wondered about what would happen.  Would her fellow humans believe her when she told of being locked up this long when others were released?  Or being given the liberty of the area?  And what had gone on with them in all this time she was out of touch?

            One thing she was firm on.  Making love to a Ghar would remain her secret.  She wondered if the Lieutenant worried about things like that.  She didn't dare ask him.

            A slight crack of thunder, no louder than a tree falling in the distance, echoed through the towers.  Miriam looked up.  "I think I see it," she said, and pointed.

            A contrail cloud crossed the sky, zigzagging as whatever created it made a turn.  It came to a stop, and "whatever" turned in to a small object.  The object grew bigger until Miriam could make out markings she could not read, then some Ghar-script numbers on the side that she could.  It was smooth on the outside and had some windows.  If it were a human vehicle she would have taken it for a bus.

            The vehicle settled down to the ground with a blast of air.  Miriam looked at the Lieutenant, who looked back at her, with two eyes.  They both turned back to the vehicle, as doors opened and slid back into concealed compartments.

            One Ghar after another climbed out.   They were all about the same size as the Lieutenant, and all were about as well-groomed as he kept himself.  None wore clothes, but all carried pouches of different sizes, slung over arms or backs.  They looked so alike to Miriam that she thought she wouldn't be able to tell them apart if she stayed.

            One came up to the Lieutenant, and gave a stiff-armed one-armed gesture that the Lieutenant told her was a salute.  The Lieutenant stiffened and saluted back.  Miriam came to attention and saluted, human fashion.  The Ghar glanced at her, then turned his attention back to the Lieutenant.

            This Ghar rattled off some words and numbers in Ghar with all three voiceboxes.  Miriam understood.  The Ghar gave his rank and position, a hair or two senior to the Lieutenant.  The Lieutenant countered with a three-voicebox run of his own rank and position.

            The Ghar soldier went on.  "I and my team are here to relieve you.  You are to remain and assist us."

            "I am aware of that," the Lieutenant replied.

            "This is your prisoner?"  After the Lieutenant wiggled his agreement, the Ghar soldier said, "He is to be transferred to another human prison.  This vehicle will return after taking him there."  He looked at Miriam, then spoke one garbled word of Standard.  "Go!"

            The Lieutenant glanced at Miriam with one eye, then said, "Her."

            "Excuse me?"

            "This human is female.  You should refer to her as 'she' or 'her.'"

            The Ghar soldier looked at Miriam.  Some unease played across his body.  "Does...she...understand me?"

            "Yes, I do," Miriam said, in as clear a sentence in Ghar language as she could summon up.  When she spoke, the other Ghar in the group, unloading supplies from the bus, turned and looked.  Miriam looked back at them, rotating in position by shuffling her feet a little at a time.

            Miriam went on.  "I am to go in the bus.  Are you ready for me?"

            "Er...as soon as the bus is empty.  Hold on."  The Ghar soldier took something from his pouch and held it out.  Miriam recognized it; a Ghar model hand-scanner.  The Ghar soldier held it in one hand, and with another, made a simple gesture that meant, "Come here."

            Miriam stepped forward.  The Ghar soldier put the scanner up to her ear and squeezed.  The scanner caught her earlobe, and the almost-forgotten plastic tag that hung from it.  The scanner beeped several times, first soft, then one loud long beep.  "The numbers match," the Ghar soldier said.  "He---she is the one we are to transfer."

            "This is Lieutenant Miriam Faraday," the Lieutenant said.  "She has been here in prison for over nine local years.  And I would have you and your team treat her with respect, as if she were one of us...if you value my goodwill."

            The Ghar soldier looked at the Lieutenant, a glare by the standards of either species.  Did it matter that the Ghar soldier was senior?

            From the side of the bus, another Ghar called out, "We're done."

            "Then it is time to go," the Ghar soldier said.  He pointed towards the bus.

            "A moment," the Lieutenant said.  He turned to Miriam and held out two hands.  Miriam took his hands in hers and stepped close.   She leaned up and kissed him, on what would have been a cheek if the Lieutenant had cheeks.

            The Lieutenant pulled Miriam close and hugged her.  Miriam tried to put her arms around his girth.  Tears formed in her eyes.  "This is the end, then."

            The Lieutenant whispered, in Standard, "Just so you know.  If this war ends and peace comes---I'll find you."

            "Until then," Miriam said, "let's remember what we had---what we have."

            They let go of each other.  Miriam wiped her eyes with her hand and looked at the Ghar soldiers standing around---she could read enough of their emotions to see they were shocked.  She looked back at the Lieutenant.  He looked unfazed by it all, calm and still.

            That decided it, Miriam thought.  If the Lieutenant could be so open among his own...the least she could do was be open among her own.

            Come what may.  Miriam turned away and walked to the bus.  As she did, the Lieutenant began to hum, then began to sing.  " 'They parted one evening / Both humbled and proud / They parted with wonder / What fate had allowed."

            Miriam stopped in mid-stride---but just for a moment.  Then she sang and walked, the song echoing from the ruined towers.  " 'They vowed to each other, To stay faithful and true / Whatever might happen / Whatever came due.' "  She sung, listened, and sung the chorus, and didn't look back until she climbed onto the bus.  The door closed and she couldn't hear him.

            The bus was laid out for Ghar.  No seats as humans understood them.  Miriam was used to that by now.  She sat down, next to a window, and looked out.  The Lieutenant still stood---did he still sing?---and as the bus lifted and pulled away from the ground, her sight of him dwindled and was lost.  She looked away, towards what would come.

            She sung, soft, to herself, the last verse of the song.  " 'When the stars shine above you / On what world that you're on / Remember the lovers / Separated so long / They never united / They lived out their dooms / Now gone and forever / And down in the tombs. /  Forget that you heard me / Or looked in my face / You're bound to a starship / And headed for space. ' "

 

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